(This is based on John Gerstner’s Primer on Biblical Inerrancy from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.)
The Early WritingsThroughout the first Christian century, the apostles’ writings were conveyed both orally and in writing. This was true from the earliest days of the Church. When Paul was at Ephesus, he heard of problems in the church at Corinth, and he immediately sent an instructional letter. Later, in Corinth, he sent a letter outlining the essentials of Christian theology to the church at Rome. By about A.D. 60, there were several letters from Paul and other apostles in the hands of various churches and individuals.
The earliest references to a New Testament come in, well, the New Testament. Peter, in about AD 68, writes (referring to Paul):
He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2. Pet 3:16)And Paul quotes from Luke’s gospel (Luke 10:7):
For the Scripture says, "Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain," and "The worker deserves his wages." (1 Tim. 5:18)The need for a written account became acute when the apostles advanced in age, for it was clear that at some point they, the eyewitnesses, would not be around. The Roman church asked Mark to write down the message that Peter had delivered to them. At an earlier time, written collections of the sayings of Christ took shape. Shortly after Mark’s account was written down, Luke penned his two part history of Christianity, the gospel that bears his name and the book of Acts. Then in the Syrian region, another gospel appeared: the gospel of Matthew. Later in the century, at Ephesus, the gospel of John, the last surviving apostle, appears.
As long as these documents were scattered about, there was in no sense a New Testament. Not that the documents were not accepted as authoritative, for they certainly were, as were Paul’s correspondence, even though (for example in Corinth) there was some questioning of Paul’s apostolic authority. Paul himself wrote:
If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. (1 Cor. 14:37)Here we see that Paul is affirming the absolute authority of what he is writing.
What was lacking, in this early period, was an officially recognized list of sacred writings. Now an example of such a thing did exist: the Old Testament. What was needed was a similar compendium of apostolic writings.
Toward the end of the first century, a movement developed to collect the writings of Paul, which consisted entirely of letters. The motivation for the movement is uncertain, but some have speculated that Luke’s Acts of the Apostles became widely known and extremely popular around the year AD 90, and this sparked interest in Paul. It is know that about this time various churches began searching their records and archives for Pauline correspondence.
By about the year 95, the “Vatican Library” of the time held Paul’s letter to the Romans, his first epistle to the Corinthians and possibly one or two others letters of Paul. It also contained the letter to the Hebrews, and First Peter, some of the gospels, and the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint).
An incontrovertible piece of evidence is the letter written to the Corinthian church in A.D. 95 by the bishop of Rome (Pope) Clement, in which he wrote:
Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the Apostle. What wrote he first unto you in the beginning of the Gospel? Of a truth he charged you in the Spirit concerning himself and Cephas [Peter] and Apollos, because that even then ye had made parties. (1 Clement, 47)So without question Clement had access to Paul’s first Corinthian epistle. Since he nowhere quoted Paul’s second letter in his own correspondence to the Corinthians, even though parts are apropos to what he writing, it is concluded that Rome did not have a copy of that correspondence.
So the effort to collect Paul’s writings continued, and by the end of the first century, it is evident that there existed a Pauline corpus that was in the hands of various churches. At first it contained ten letters, but shortly thereafter the three pastoral letters (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus) were added.
At the same time, another collection began to circulate among the churches: the four gospels. From the beginning of the second century, the Catholic Church used these and only these gospels, even though the occasional gospel of someone-else appeared.
So in the early years of the second century there were two books in circulation: The Gospels, with contents According to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and The Pauline Corpus, with subheadings To the Romans, First Letter to the Corinthians, etc.
The church was making admirable progress in establishing a canon. And then something wonderful happened to expedite the process: Heresy arose.
The Heretic MarcionMarcion was son of the Bishop of Sinope in Pontus (Asia Minor), born c. A.D. 110, evidently from wealthy parents. Around the year A.D. 140 he traveled to Rome and presented his peculiar teachings to the elders. They found his ideas unacceptable. Marcion’s response was to leave the church and form his own heretical sect.
Marcion’s heresy anticipates some that followed. Marcion (1) denied the authority of the entirety of the Old Testament and (2) denied the authority of all the apostles except Paul, because only Paul (according to Marcion) did not allow his faith to be defiled by mixing it with Judaism. Only Paul had not apostatized from the teachings of Jesus.
Marcion was perhaps the first to claim that the God of the Old Testament is not the same as the God of the New Testament. Jesus’ many appeals to the Old Testament notwithstanding, Marcion believed that Jesus Himself placed no authority in the Old Testament and had come to liberate man from the bondage to the Old Testament God.
Jesus, according to Marcion, was not the son of the God of the Old Testament, but the son of the superior God of goodness and mercy of the New Testament whom Marcion called the Father.
The sacred writings (including Paul’s letters), Marcion taught, had been corrupted by Judiazers if not directly by the Jewish sympathies of the apostles (excluding Paul). All scripture was in need of a cleansing under Marcion’s direction.
So Marcion deleted the Old Testament, and developed his own canon consisting of two parts: The Gospel, a sanitized version of Luke’s gospel, and The Apostle, a similarly sanitized version of Paul’s first ten letters. Marcion’s canon provided the impetus for the Church to redouble her efforts to establish a proper canon of her own. Immediately there was anti-Marcion pronouncements that voiced support for the Catholic writings, but still, those writings were not officially delimited into a collection of sacred scriptures.
On the other hand, the situation was not hopelessly muddled, not by a long shot. The church did have an effectively recognized ad hoc canon, but it lacked official sanctioning. Documents discovered in the twentieth century attest to the fact that by 140-150, the collection of writings accepted by Rome was virtually identical with our New Testament.
So the Catholic response to Marcion was this: (1) We accept the Old Testament because Christ fulfilled them and stamped them with his approval. (2) The divinely inspired books of this new age do not supersede the Old Testament but stand beside it. (3) The Gospel contains not one but four accounts, including the one that Marcion mangled. (4) The Apostle contains not just ten of Paul’s letters, but thirteen, and it also contains correspondence of some of the other apostles. (5) Special emphasis was placed on Luke’s second half of Christian history, the Book of Acts, which Marcion omitted from his canon. Its special place was now recognized: it bridged The Gospel to The Apostle. (It was at this time that the book became known as The Acts of the Apostles, although in some anti-Marcion literature it was dubbed The Acts of All the Apostles.
Another response to Marcion was to write prologues for each of the gospels in order to establish their legitimacy. The prologue to Matthew’s gospel was lost. Part of Mark’s prologue reads:
…Mark declared, who is called 'stump-fingered,' because he had rather small fingers in comparison with the stature of the rest of his body. He was the interpreter of Peter. After the death of Peter himself he wrote down this same gospel in the regions of Italy.Luke’s prologue has a lengthy biography:
Luke was a native of Syrian Antioch, a physician by profession, a disciple of the apostles. Later he accompanied Paul until the latter's martyrdom, serving the Lord without distraction, for he had neither wife nor children. He died in Boeotia at the age of eighty-four, full of the Holy Spirit. So then, after two Gospels had already been written - Matthew's in Judea and Mark's in Italy - Luke wrote this Gospel in the region of Achaia, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. At its outset, he indicated that other Gospels had been written before his own, but that the obligation lay upon him to set forth for the Gentile believers a complete account in the course of his narrative and to do so as accurately as possible. The object of this was that they might not be captivated on the one hand by a love for Jewish fables, nor on the other hand be deceived by heretical and vain imaginations and thus wander from the truth. So, right at the beginning, Luke has handed down to us the story of the birth of John [the Baptist], as a most essential [part of the Gospel story]; for John marks the beginning of the Gospel, since he was our Lord's forerunner and associate both in the preparation of the Gospel and in the administration of baptism and the fellowship of the Spirit. This ministry [of John's] was foretold by one of the Twelve Prophets [i.e. the minor prophets]. Later on, the same Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles.The anti-Marcion flavor of this prologue is evident when it is understood that included in the considerable mischief Marcion made with Luke’s gospel, he completely excised any reference to John the Baptist, since John the Baptist was a link between the new age and the Jewish past. Furthermore, the explicit reference to The Acts of the Apostles is a not very subtle reminder that Marcion rejected that work.
The most intriguing is John’s prologue:
The Gospel of John was published and given to the churches by John when he was still in the body, as Papias of Hierapolis, John’s dear disciple has related in his five exegetical books. He wrote down the gospel accurately at John’s dictation. But the heretic Marcion was rejected by John, after earning his disapproval for his contrary views.There are several inaccuracies that jump out—certainly the apostle John was not a contemporary of Marcion.
Another anti-Marcion document was a list of books that represents the canon near the end of the second century. It was discovered by L. A. Muratori in 1740. The beginning is missing, and the first book mentioned is the gospel of Luke and it’s called the third, so it is reasonable to assume that it included Matthew and Mark as the first and second books. From this we see what books are in the canon around A.D. 200. The four gospels, Acts, Paul’s thirteen letters, Jude, two epistles of John (the second of which is possibly what we now consider the second and third.) Revelation, and a second Revelation due to Peter. This book is known and was read in some churches –its lurid treatment of the state of the damned is believed to underlie much medieval writing on the subject including Dante’s Inferno.
Some believe the epistles of Peter are omitted by error. Regardless, we have essentially a recognizable canon, with the notable absence of Hebrews and James.
In summary, from the earliest days of the Christianity, most of the books in the New Testament were recognized as scripture. The books mentioned, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation were delayed in that they lacked universal endorsement. These disputes were settles by the fourth century. In AD 363 The Council of Laodicia listed all the New Testament books except Revelation. In AD 367 Athanasius of Alexandria cited all 27 New Testament books in a letter. And in AD 397, the Third Council of Carthage became the first ecumenical council to list all 27 books.
EDIT: Corrected reference to Septuagint as a Greek version of the Old Testament. HT: Larry Thomspon